As of the end of June I have been a high school graduate for 20 years, and in keeping with tradition there was supposed to be a reunion. Somehow the powers that be failed to organize anything in time so in lieu of an actually gathering someone started a Facebook group and graduates were invited to post about their lives.
I am not sure which I found more frightening; the idea of spending an evening with a bunch of almost 40 year olds who want to relive their teen years or trying to sum up my life thus far in a paragraph for a social media site.
I have to admit it was interesting seeing what people decided to say but I couldn’t figure out what to write. I didn’t fit the template; university/job/spouse/children/house. All of which seems normal to most people and (now) completely foreign to me.
I got to thinking about our life onboard, and what our normal is. I got to thinking how many people – family/friends/readers – probably don’t really know what life onboard is like. So here is my attempt to give you a glimpse.
We live on a 41’ or 12.4M, sailboat. Living on a yacht is an amazing way to travel, we are not constrained by roads, or even blocks of land. We can escape to some of the most beautiful places in the world but sleep in our own bed. And, if we don’t like our neighbours we can just pull up anchor and move. We’ve been onboard for 8 years and Kate is definitely home. In fact she is EVERYTHING. There is no storage unit full of furniture, no car on loan to a relative and no house to return to. So, while I am enjoying those beautiful vistas the idea that something could go wrong and we could lose absolutely everything we own and hold dear constantly looms in the back of my mind.
Kate (the original name and I won’t go into the superstitions of changing a name of a boat) was built in 1973. She can hold her own in a race around the cans and has proven her worth during blue water passages. She is sea-kindly and strong. If she were a car she would be a Volvo; well-built and practical, elegant but not exactly luxurious. But back then they made boats with more of a mind for sail performance and practical living quarters than spaciousness.
The main cabin is 11’ X 11’. That’s smaller than most single car garages, and nowadays that’s smaller than most SUV’s. When I put down my yoga mat it takes up almost all the floor space in the cabin. We have 6’ head space in the centre of the cabin, works for us (except when doing yoga poses with hands above head) but if any of the men in my family ever get a chance to visit they won’t be able stand up straight inside.
Within that precious box is the galley, the desk/navigation station, the settee (that’s boat speak for sofa) and the dining table with built in surround seating, one of which is a fridge. Another smaller fridge is the seat at the desk. The galley has a three burner propane stove, a tiny oven and a single sink. All of our books, dishes, pots and pans, foodstuffs, tools, spares, computers, cameras and safety gear are stored in this space. Some are cleverly concealed behind seat backs and under counter tops, some are crammed into the four built-in bookshelves that line the walls.
Not only do we have minimal storage space, we strive to have minimal things to store. Absolutely everything must be securely tucked away or tied down so that when the boat moves it doesn’t break, or worse, turn into a potentially dangerous projectile. The trick is to find the most efficient arrangement of objects to maximize the small amount of space available. It is like living inside a 3D game of Tetris.
And that’s another thing; the boat is constantly in motion. Whether we are sailing or at anchor we are always moving. Which means no putting your coffee cup down on the counter and coming back in a few minutes, no leaving dishes in the dish rack to dry, no fruit bowls or condiments in the middle of the table, no cupboards left ajar or drawers not quite closed. No knick knacks, bowls of potpourri, candles or other “pretty things” that don’t really serve any purpose. Unless, of course, they are nailed down.
Take two small steps forward of the main cabin and you are in our bedroom, complete with en suite. That is if you can consider the only bathroom onboard an en suite. On board Kate we have a wet head which means that the shower is not a separate, enclosed stall. Since the room is small (I can sit on the toilet and touch the opposite wall with a flat foot, I can also stretch my arm out the door and reach the bunk) it means that when you shower everything in the room gets wet; counter, walls, toilet, mirror and towel if you forget to move it.
We have no hot water onboard Kate and either use a solar shower bag or ambient temperature water directly from the tank. We also do not regularly use the pressurized water system onboard but have installed foot pumps in the galley and head. To get water to flow from the tap you simply step on a small peddle near the floor. This cuts down dramatically on how much water is used onboard. The toilet is a standard marine toilet; a manually pumped, salt water flush. When we bought the boat there was no door on the head so I hung a curtain for privacy. I make sure to mention the lack of door to any potential visitors who might have a different definition of “private” than we do.
We sleep in the vee berth, aptly named because it is at the pointy end of the boat and the bed is a triangle. The bunk is raised (storage underneath) and is 6’ wide at one end and 2’ wide at the other. You have to step up, push aside the pillows, crawl onto the bunk and then do a 180. Watching someone clamber into bed reminds me of a dog circling his favourite spot getting ready to lie down. Sitting up straight while in bed is almost impossible, so is sneaking out of bed without disturbing the other person, let alone avoiding kicking them in the head. Sounds romantic doesn’t it?
Except for a few pairs of long pants and a couple woolie sweaters that are stored under the bed, the combined wardrobe of two people fit in three small drawers, one tiny hanging closet and one cupboard. Our shoes live in a small compartment that is a little bigger than a medium size shoebox. And I can hear you all thinking that bikinis, boardies and flip flops don’t take up much space, and you’re right.
But we don’t hang out in our swim trunks all day; in fact we keep quiet covered to protect our skin from the harsh tropical sun. And if you want to go ashore you have to respect the local dress code. In the South Pacific that means you should probably be wearing a shirt that covers your shoulders and for women shows very little cleavage. Modest shorts for the men and a skirt to the knee for the ladies. You need clothes that you can go hiking in and clothes that you can wear out for the occasional meal ashore. You need something nice to wear to visit the Port Captain and something that you can be seen in at an international airport. You need long clothes for night watches and clothes that you can get stained with grease and paint when working on the boat. Above all you need clothes that are easy to wash and fairly quick to dry because laundry onboard is done by hand in a bucket with a keen eye on how much water is used.
As for water we hold about 300 L in two tanks. That’s enough to last two people about a week for cooking, cleaning and showering everyday – I am in the “cleanliness is next to godliness” camp so no stinky sailors here! We are fortunate that Steve installed an engine driven reverse osmosis water maker and we pump out about 60-70L/hr, depending on sea water temp and clarity. We also catch rain water whenever possible. So although we are very water conscience we don’t have to be as careful as boats that do not have water makers onboard and rely on rain collection and ferrying water from shore. Once a week we make water for a couple hours the sole purpose of doing laundry. It is amazing how much water laundry consumes, even when you are very careful and do it by hand.
Besides water we also make our own power via solar panels and a wind generator which is stored in a battery bank. Being able to make and store power means we have refrigeration, a HUGE consumer of power and something lots of boats go without. We can turn on lights at night lights and cool off when it is hot with a small fan. On passage we use electronic instruments for navigation and at night coloured navigation lights. We can have computers and a phone. We can turn on the stereo and listen to music. I have one electrical appliance in the galley; an occasionally used stick blender. Steve has a few power tools that are needed once in a while. Everything else onboard is manual. Getting a glass of drinking water, flushing the toilet, making coffee and toast for breakfast, doing dishes, having a shower, reheating dinner – all done without electricity.
We constantly monitor our power input and mind our power usage/wastage. On an overcast day I might not be able to use/charge my laptop or we may have to turn off a fridge. If we have too many cloudy days in a row we have to charge the batteries via a small, portable generator.
I like to think that we eat pretty well onboard but grocery shopping, or as we say provisioning, is not always easy. Not just because of the limited supplies available in smaller outposts but because we have to think 4, 8, 12 weeks in advance. We carry enough food and supplies (TP, toothpaste, deo, dish soap, laundry detergent, gasoline, diesel etc…) for two people for 2-4 months at any given time. This allows us to travel wherever we want without being a burden on the local population whose supplies are usually limited and often sporadic in their arrival. Do you know what kind of things keep well in a village store in the tropics without refrigeration? Staples like rice, flour and sugar – Good! And highly processed foodstuffs like shelf-stable cheese, instant noodles and margarine that never, ever melts – SO, SO bad.
So, we make everything from yogurt and granola, to bread and pizza, to preserves and pickles from scratch, partly because we enjoy it and mostly because there simply is no way to buy them. We shop at local fresh markets for fruit, veggies, eggs and sometimes meat because the only things that you are likely to find in a “grocery store”, a term that I use to describe what most people would simple call a corner shop or gas station convenience store, are canned goods, dry stores and imported onions, garlic. If you’re lucky there is the occasional mangy carrot and mealy apple.
I have eaten fresh tomatoes twice since New Year’s but currently have more green beans than can shake a stick at. I dream of strawberries (no really I do) but regularly eat passion fruit and guava and pineapple. I crave broccoli and cauliflower but can get wild foraged mushrooms and local spinach. The concept of “eating local and seasonal” is not a food trend on a sailboat but a natural way of life.
We don’t have dedicated internet onboard. We use local cell phone service/mobile data and WIFI hotspots. When we are at sea we are out of contact, sometimes for days or weeks on end. This doesn’t make us panic, in fact I look forward to it. We also don’t have TV. What do we do, you ask? We talk to each other, we have mad games of scrabble, we read books and occasionally watch a DVD. Just like everyone did circa 1995.
Sailing is a unique way to travel. It is physically and mentally demanding but also incredibly liberating. I love arriving somewhere by water; being able to smell the place before you even see it, to feel the motion of the sea change as it encounters terra firma, watching the destination appear, not as a fully formed image after hours in spent in suspension of flight, but slowly on the horizon, the perspective constantly look inward, everything magnified and becoming more focused as you draw nearer to land.
People often ask how long we plan on sailing, and I am always a little stumped for an answer. I think most people view this lifestyle as some sort of hiatus, a break from the “real world”, a way to escape.
And perhaps for some it is, but not for us.
For us this is life. This is where we fit and how we make it work. Maybe we’ll tire of it in a decade, maybe we’ll sail until we’re too old and stiff to live on board anymore. For now, and for the foreseeable future, this is where we are happy. This is our normal.